Jan 09, 2023 I Paul Seaburn

Comet Last Seen by Neanderthals May Be Visible Again This Month

There was a time when being called a “Neanderthal” was an insult – the Oxford English Dictionary says it meant “a primitive, uncivilized, or loutish person” while other dictionaries were less civil, with definitions along the lines of a "big, brutish, stupid person." Those were based on early assumptions made back in the 19th century when their skulls were first found in the Neandertal Valley of Germany and conventional wisdom of the time thought their large foreheads, protruding brows and big teeth meant they were strong, knuckle-dragging, low intelligence oafs. It took a long time, but that first impression is changing as more fossils and artifacts of Neanderthals are found -  it turns out they were adept at making and using tools, they were excellent hunters and accomplished artists … and they were good-looking enough that our ancestors mated with them. A lot … if you believe our genomes. Now we’ve learned that they may have been astronomers too. A comet is approaching Earth to make its first appearance in 50,000 years and it will be visible to the naked eye just as it was the last time … when Neanderthals were around in large numbers. Did they know what they were looking at? Did they draw it on a cave wall above some animals? Did they take time to explain it to those dumb homo sapiens?

Did you see that?

“A recently discovered comet is now passing through the inner solar system and should be visible with a telescope and likely with binoculars. The comet, which has a mouthful of a name – C/2022 E3 (ZTF) – was first sighted in March last year, when it was already inside the orbit of Jupiter. It makes its closest approach to the Sun on January 12, and then passes its closest to Earth on February 2. Comets are notoriously unpredictable, but if this one continues its current trend in brightness, it'll be easy to spot with binoculars, and it's just possible it could become visible to the unaided eye under dark skies.”

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced the second (or third or more) coming of C/2022 E3 (ZTF) in its “What’s Up – January 2023” newsletter. While warning that predictions of visible comets often don’t come true, this one may cross the morning sky to the northwest in the Northern Hemisphere at the end of January. From there, it could become visible in the Southern Hemisphere in early February. If you are into astronomy numbers, C/2022 E3 (ZTF) will be within around 100 million miles (160 million km) of the sun on January 12 and 26 million miles (42 million km) of Earth on February 2. Ironically, the comet has a period (time for one complete revolution of the sun) of about 50,000 years, so the last Groundhog Day it visited Earth was during the Upper Paleolithic era when Neanderthals were still here but fading, while the homo sapiens were coming up fast.

That 50,000 year period makes C/2022 E3 (ZTF) is a long period comet. It was discovered by the Zwicky Transient Facility (hence the 'ZTF') on March 2nd, 2022, using the 1.2-m, f/2.4 Schmidt telescope at Mount Palomar. The BBC’s Sky at Night Magazine website is not as hopeful as NASA that the comet will be visible with the naked eye. Predictions so far are for C/2022 E3 (ZTF) to reach a magnitude of between +5 and +6 – that is about the same as Uranus, the faintest naked eye planet. Unfortunately, it predicts that C/2022 E3 (ZTF) will not be a faint dot like Uranus nor a classic comet with a tail like the Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE which put on a show for our naked eyes back in the summer of 2020.

“Instead C/2022 E3 (ZTF) will more likely look like a smudge in the sky, like someone has dipped their finger in chalk dust and dabbed it on a blackboard.”

For those of you too young to remember, a blackboard or chalkboard is what teachers wrote on before whiteboards and online CGI presentations. Astronomers don’t really care that much if we can see it with our naked eyes in the few locations left on Earth that are relatively free from light pollution – they’ve been tracking it by telescope since the late summer. As such, they are able to see its short but obvious ion tail behind its head, which they say has a distinct fan shaped appearance. Right now, Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) in the bowl of Corona Borealis and visible in the Northern Hemisphere in mid-morning to those with telescopes. The magnitude is increasing, which Sky at Night says is a good sign that it could make naked eye brightness by the end of the month. However, the magazine also hedges its bets:

A chalkboard smudge.

“Not only are predictions being made about how E3 will "blaze in the sky" or "light up the sky" next month, but some reports are claiming it is "spectacular!" now, based on its appearance in long exposure photos taken using sophisticated equipment and processed using specialised software. It isn’t "spectacular", and even if it performs at its best it won’t be "spectacular". No-one should be predicting that, and we won’t be predicting that here at BBC Sky at Night Magazine!”

So, did the Neanderthals see Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) when it made its previous pass across our sky 50,000 years ago? It is highly likely that they did, since most estimates of their extinction now put it at around 28,000 years ago rather than the once accepted 40,000 years ago. Were they aware of what they were seeing? That is where things get interesting. We know that homo sapiens and Neanderthals were living together in some areas around this time in the Upper Paleolithic era. A recent discovery announced this week that cave paintings found in Europe dating about 20,000 years ago show animals with unusual marks, lines and dots in them. New analysis theorizes that these marks are evidence that Paleolithic hunter-gatherers were recording the times of the year when animals were gathered to together to mate, and the marks were a primitive lunar calendar. Could these early humans have shared this knowledge of using the moon to track time with their Neanderthal friends, relatives and children? It’s possible, although researchers haven’t yet found evidence of Neanderthal markings to match them.

A cave painting with a green smudge in the sky over a buffalo or a mammoth would go a long way to0ward proving that our Neanderthal ancestors were aware that Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) unusual in their night sky. Did they have their own name for it? Neanderthal intelligence proponents are hoping you didn’t suggest that they called it “Ugh!”

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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